Author : Daniel Porras

Expert Speak Space Tracker
Published on Jun 16, 2018
ASAT test guidelines: A viable option to implement TCBMs

Source Image: Wiki

International Space Station after relocation of the P6 truss assembly

At present, United Nations member states are seeking to bring new momentum to discussions surrounding the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS). This long-standing UN agenda item was addressed extensively in the 1980s and 90s but became mired in political differences that ultimately brought discussions to a standstill. However, the rapid increase in the number of space actors, particularly commercial ones, and the development of certain “anti-satellite” (ASAT) technologies (of the type that target and neutralise a space object) has led to renewed efforts among the international community to address space security threats.

UN member states are searching for viable options to implement transparency and confidence-building measures (TCBMs) as a means to ensuring the long-term sustainability of human space activities. One option that might be pursued is the establishment of guidelines for the testing of ASAT technology in order to reduce harmful impacts on Earth’s orbits for all. By adopting such guidelines, the international community can strengthen space security and begin the process of building much-needed trust in an environment that is increasingly seen as being “contested” and “competitive”.

The threat of ASAT tests

There is ample evidence of the growth taking place in outer space. A recent study by Bank of America Merrill Lynch reported that the current space market is valued at roughly US$ 350 billion, with some estimating that it will continue to grow to reach roughly US$ 2.7 trillion within the next three decades. <1> In addition to commercial and scientific missions, there is also a greater role for space capabilities in military operations, whether it be through telecommunications, reconnaissance or targeting. Consequently, over the years, distinct types of “counter-space” capabilities have emerged to neutralise military space assets, including ASAT technology. ASATs can come in different forms suc as converted missile defence systems, co-orbital drones or even high-energy lasers that target and strike an object in orbit. <2>

Whilst ASATs have never been used in open conflict, they have been used in tests and demonstrations. Notably, in 2007, China destroyed its FengYun 1C weather satellite with an SC-19 missile, leaving behind a cloud of space debris consisting of 3,280 pieces of trackable debris, as well as up to 32,000 pieces that are non-trackable. <3> The following year, during Operation Burnt Frost, the US destroyed its own satellite, USA-193, with an SM-3 interceptor creating 174 pieces of trackable debris, plus non-trackable shards. <4> The biggest difference between these two operations relates to the resulting debris, which is trash and shrapnel left over from break-ups in orbit. While the debris created by the US operation were fewer in number and deorbited within two years, the debris from the Chinese test will likely remain in orbit for decades. This puts all objects in the low Earth orbit (such as telecommunication and Earth observation satellites, as well as the International Space Station) in danger from potentially catastrophic collisions.

Since these two occurrences, testing on the underlying technology of ASAT equipment has continued, though none of the subsequent missions involved the creation of long-lived debris. Indeed, the US, Russia and China have all taken recent steps to improve their capabilities to neutralise space objects if necessary, raising concerns that conflict might finally erupt in space. <5> Even India has been openly debating the pros and cons of developing and demonstrating an Indian “hit-to-kill” ASAT, based on its existing missile defence capabilities. <6> While some of the building blocks for these ASATs already exist, it is highly likely that, to bring these technologies into operation, more tests would be necessary, including tests that leave behind debris.

Implementing TCBMs

At the international level, discussions on how to address this growing threat have been beset by differences of opinion on the best approach. Some States advocate for the adoption of a legally binding instrument that bans weapons from outer space. However, support among some major space stakeholders has been slow to build for this, leaving others to recommend the adoption of TCBMs, non-legally binding agreements that can serve to build trust between State actors. In 2013, a UN Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on Outer Space TCBMs (comprised of two dozen Member States) reached consensus on a report that recommended numerous TCBMs. One TCBM stipulates that intentional orbital break-ups that leave behind long-lived debris should be avoided, and if debris must be created, States should inform other potentially affected States of their plans, including measures to ensure a limited lifetime for remaining debris. <7> This provision contains, in essence, three principles:

    • No Debris: if an actor wishes to test ASAT capabilities, they should not create debris;

    • Low Debris: if an actor must create debris during an ASAT test, the test should be carried out at an altitude sufficiently low that the debris will not be long-lived; and,

    • Notification: actors testing ASATs should notify others of their activities to avoid misperceptions or misinterpretations.

These proposed ASAT guidelines are, by and large, applied de facto today. By avoiding the creation of significant amounts of long-lived debris in ASAT tests throughout the last decade, China and the US have avoided the widespread public criticism that arose from earlier ASAT tests. By explicitly stating these principles in guidelines, States would provide each other, as well as private actors, with assurances that testing new ASAT technology will not put the long-term sustainability of human space activities at risk.

These proposed guidelines would apply to all types of ASAT capabilities, whether they be a missile interceptor or a co-orbital drone, whether it be “hit-to-kill” or energy based. The key element would be that the test should not create long-lived debris. It is important to note, however, that these ASAT test guidelines would not be a blanket prohibition on the testing of ASATs, or their possession. They would also not be intended to interfere with the development of ballistic missile technology or missile defence shields, provided they be carried out at sufficiently low altitudes.

The guidelines would also be compatible with other measures relating to space activities. They would be in line with other TCBMs, such as The Hague Code of Conduct Against Ballistic Missile Proliferation or the COPUOS Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines, as well as any legally binding instrument that might one day be adopted. Yet perhaps the most compelling argument for adopting these three guidelines is that it would promote the very stability and sustainability necessary for investments in space. Notably, they would be consistent with existing US, Russian and Chinese policies to unleash the full economic potential of their domestic space resources. For the US, this would be of particular importance as it prepares to authorize a wide array of non-traditional space activities within those orbits most at risk from ASAT tests. Indeed, the thriving space economy that benefits people all over the world could come under serious threat should there be any more incidents like the 2007 test.

Finally, some consideration should be given to the possible options for adoption of this suggestion by the international community. The Conference on Disarmament (CD), the international community’s major disarmament forum, is the most likely body to address such a proposal, particularly within the newly formed Subsidiary Body 3 on PAROS. However, there are still many challenges to progress in the CD and so other options should be considered. The UN Disarmament Commission, a deliberative body, could also discuss the guidelines in its Working Group II as a means to implement the recommendations of the GGE on TCBMs. Member States could also make individual declarations, indicating their willingness to incorporate the guidelines into national policies. By acknowledging the efficacy of this limited approach to ASAT testing, individual States can strengthen the argument that the guidelines represent best practices and responsible behaviour.

Short and long range options

As new discussions are taken up on the subject of PAROS, a variety of short and long-range options will be available to UN member states. Limited, focused TCBMs can play a role in achieving short-term PAROS objectives whilst a treaty is debated and negotiated. In this context, ASAT test guidelines—no debris, low debris, notification—could offer a voluntary, non-legally binding solution to mitigate the threat of debris-generating ASAT tests, at least in the short-term. Such a stop-gap measure could provide much-needed time to find more permanent, long-term solutions and help generate greater confidence among nations necessary to do so.

This article is based on a report published by the UN Institute of Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), The Space Dossier File 2: Towards ASAT test guidelines.

Daniel Porras is a Space Security Fellow at UNIDIR, Geneva

<1> Sheetz, Michael, "The space industry will be worth nearly $3 trillion in 30 years, Bank of America predicts", CNBC News, 31 October 2017.

<2> See Weeden, Brian and Victoria Samson (eds), “Global Counterspace Capabilities: An Open Source Assessment”, Secure World Foundation, 2018.

<3> David, Leonard, “China’s Anti-Satellite Test: Worrisome Debris Cloud Circles the Earth”,, 2 February 2007. Weeden, Brian, “Through a Glass Darkly: Chinese, American and Russian Anti-Satellite Testing in Space”, Secure World Foundation, 17 March 2014, p. 17.

<4> Petrucci, Nicole, “Reflections on Operation Burnt Frost”, Air Power Strategy, 5 March 2017. See also Weeden, Brian, “Through a Glass Darkly: Chinese, American and Russian Anti-Satellite Testing in Space”, Secure World Foundation, 17 March 2014, pp. 26–27.

<5> Porras, Daniel, "Towards ASAT Test Guidelines", UNIDIR, May 2018, pp. 6-7.

<6> See “Why India Needs to Demonstrate Anti Satellite (ASAT) Capability—Publicly”, Strategic Frontier Research Foundation, 11 December 2017.

<7> Report of the Group of Governmental Experts on Transparency and Confidence-Building Measures in Outer Space Activities, §45, A/68/189, June 2013.

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Daniel Porras

Daniel Porras

Daniel Porras is a Non-Resident Fellow at the UN Institute for Disarmament Research where he focuses on space security and global governance. He was the ...

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